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As sunscreen misinformation spreads online, dermatologists face real-life impact of online trends

Fighting the "anti-sunscreen movement" online
Dermatologists battle online "anti-sunscreen movement" spreading misinformation, health risks 04:40

With the holiday weekend in full swing, the anti-sunscreen movement's recent spike is worrying dermatologists.

"It was not like this before," Dr. Jeanine Downie, a board-certified dermatologist with her own practice in New Jersey told CBS News Confirmed. "I see easily six patients per week that are anti-sunscreen, where it used to be maybe one every other week or one a month. And now it's just gotten crazy."

Downie says in the last two weeks she's diagnosed three squamous cell and two malignant melanomas, both of which can turn cancerous if not caught early. "And that's me, just one little dermatologist," she said.

This movement picked up steam in June, with creators on TikTok telling followers in no uncertain terms "stop wearing sunscreen." At first, the posts received tens of thousands of views and likes. Dermatologists on the platform then began sharing their own reactions, with those videos gaining even more views. And more recently, influencer Nara Smith went viral sharing an at-home sunscreen recipe to her 8 million followers that dermatologists say does little to protect wearers from sun damage.

Dr. Shereene Idriss, a New York dermatologist who has amassed more than a million followers on her social media channels, is trying to leverage that influence to educate users about sunscreen and sun protection.

"It's becoming more and more difficult, I think, as a consumer, to try to weed through the noise," Idriss told CBS News Confirmed. 

This misinformation reflects the surprising reality of how some young Americans view sun safety. A study by the Orlando Health Cancer Institute in March found that 1 in 7 adults under the age of 35 say daily sunscreen use is more harmful than direct sun exposure. "I tell my patients, if you want your face to look like a leather bag later, then that's up to you," Downie said. About 6.1 million adults are treated each year for basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas according to the CDC. Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the country.

"They only want the natural things," said Downie. "But I tell them all the time, sitting in traffic here in the tri-state area, the level of pollutants in the air on a daily, weekly and monthly basis is significantly more toxic than any chemical they're going to rub into their skin with sunblock."

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While there's no evidence that sunscreens are unsafe, the FDA is currently investigating potential concerns. It's called for more data on 12 ingredients often found in U.S. sunscreen. After conducting its own study into how certain ingredients are absorbed into the bloodstream, the FDA has called for more research into potential health effects on the body.

However, beachgoers on the Jersey Shore this week told CBS News that sun safety is top of mind this summer. CBS News Confirmed looked at Google Search trends and saw terms like "sunscreen" and "what does skin cancer look like" are at an all-time high since tracking began in 2004.

"You know what gets them to start wearing sunblock?" said Downie. "Young kids and young adults, Gen Z, Gen X, they hate pores. And once they hear that they're going to have big pores that look like potholes, they put that sunblock on."

The dermatologists CBS Newsspoke with say there is no such thing as a healthy tan. To best protect yourself this summer, they say to use sunscreen and reapply often; wear UPF clothing or UV visors; and avoid being outside during peak UV index between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.

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